One of my favorite shows of 2019 was Raising Dion. This Netflix original is about a recently widowed mom who finds out her young son, Dion, has superpowers. Dion’s best friend is Esperanza, a sassy, smart wheelchair user who is proud of who she is and proud to be Dion’s best buddy. Throughout the nine-episode season, Esperanza exerts herself as a strong girl and a great friend to Dion, even when Dion isn’t a great friend to her.
Esperanza is an important character for the Disability Community because it is so rare that disabled people are portrayed positively and realistically in television and film. While one in four Americans have a disability, only about two percent of characters on TV and in film have disabilities, and those that do are often portrayed in stereotypically negative ways. Furthermore, characters with disabilities are often played by nondisabled actors.
Esperanza is completely different than most characters with disabilities. First, her character is played by actor Sammi Haney, who is a wheelchair user in real life. Second, Esperanza’s character does not offer a tragic or negative view on disability; she embraces who she is in a rather matter-of-fact manner.
For example, in an early episode, Esperanza visits Dion at home where Dion has built a fort in his room out of blankets, pillows, and toys. Upon seeing it, Esperanza immediately offers Dion her “thoughts” on his fort – “It’s not wheelchair accessible.” When Dion rebuttals with the fact that he did not know Esperanza was coming over to play, Esperanza had no time for his excuses. She simply replies “well, I’m here.” And with that, Dion works to make his fort accessible so that they can both play in it.
As the season goes on, Esperanza’s role continues to grow, and the lessons she and Dion learn together are impactful. I won’t ruin it for you, but I will encourage you to watch the full season, because the interactions between Esperanza and Dion in episodes eight and nine are incredibly important and they illustrate a really important lesson that many in society still struggle with today. I was completely impressed with the storyline and how it was handled.
As a woman who has used a wheelchair my entire life, Esperanza is exactly the character I wish I had seen on TV when I was growing up. And she’s exactly the character that I am glad that my nondisabled nieces and nephews get to see as they grow up now because it’s not just kids with disabilities who need to see disabled people on television; All kids benefit from seeing people with disabilities represented in the media.
My nieces and nephews have grown up with me and learned about disability and wheelchairs by watching Aunt Steph, but now they can also see and learn about disability from someone their own age on television. They’re also learning about the importance of access, not only from me, but from Esperanza!
I’m thrilled that my nieces and nephews, and all children for that matter, have the opportunity to see disability portrayed in a realistic manner and learn that it is normal and fun to build friendships with kids with disabilities. After all, if superheroes have disabled best friends, why shouldn’t you?
About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.